God Uses Ordinary People: Elizabeth

Luke 1:5-25

June 29, 2008 | Brian Bill

One day a man passed by a farm and saw a beautiful horse.  Hoping to buy the animal, he said to the farmer: “I think your horse looks pretty good, so I’ll give you $500 for him.”  “He doesn’t look good, and he’s not for sale,” the farmer said.  The man insisted, “I think he looks good and I’ll up the price to $1000!”  “He doesn’t look so good,” the farmer said, “but if you want him that much, he’s yours.”  The next day the man came back raging mad.  He went up to the farmer and screamed, “You sold me a blind horse!  You cheated me!”  The farmer calmly replied, “I told you he didn’t look so good, didn’t I?”

This man was disappointed because his expectations evaporated as soon as he got the horse home.  I wonder how many of you feel disappointed by something that’s happened.  Or maybe you feel cheated because something that you’ve expected to happen hasn’t happened yet.

God Uses Ordinary People

The characters in Scripture are very similar to you and me. Each one has a mixture of beautiful and bad, of faith and fear.  They are commonplace people and when we study their lives we find out how much they are just like us and how we are just like them.  James 5:17 says, “Elijah was a man just like us.”  I’m confident that we’ll learn a lot in our summer survey of the ordinary people that God used.

The study of Bible biographies can help us in one of two ways:

  • Examples to avoid.  Sometimes when we read the Bible we come across people like Jonah who said “no” when God said “go.”  This kind of behavior serves as a warning for us as stated in 1 Corinthians 10:6-11: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
  • Examples to emulate.  When we read about what happened in the past, we can also find models to mimic and examples to emulate like Elizabeth, the woman we’ll be studying today.  Romans 15:4: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” 

Please turn in your Bibles to Luke 1.  When I told a couple different people this week that we would be focusing on Elizabeth today, they had a quizzical look on their faces as they tried to place who she was.  While there is actually quite a bit of Scripture devoted to her, she sort of gets lost in the nativity narrative.  We tend to skip over her role as the mother of John the Baptist in our eagerness to magnify Mary’s significance.

Let’s begin in verse 5: “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.”  Zechariah and Elizabeth lived when wicked Herod was on the throne.  He was the guy who not only killed members of his family but also ordered the extermination of all male babies under the age of two.  Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was also from a family of priests.  Even before eHarmony, their backgrounds were quite compatible.  

Verse 6 tells us about their character: “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.”  In short, they walked with God and took their faith seriously.  They lived in an unnamed village in the hill country of Judea, obscure and ordinary, yet upright before God.

While you wait for something new, God is working on you

As we take a look at Elizabeth’s life, I want to draw out six practical truths that will help us persevere in our prayers and deal with disappointment.  If you’re looking for one statement that summarizes what I want us to learn, here it is: While you wait for something new, God is working on you.

1. Describe your disappointment. 

As devoted as Elizabeth was, she was also deeply disappointed.  Notice how verse 7 begins: But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.”  Some of you couples may be experiencing this kind of pain as well.  In that culture barrenness was considered to be a sign of God’s disfavor so this couple would have lived with some shame and the knowledge that while they were devoted to God, others probably thought they had done something wrong.

Let’s begin by declaring some of our disappointments.  In what area of life are you experiencing unmet expectations?  What prayers have been met with silence?  As I walk over to the white board, could you shout out some of these things?

2. Pray for God’s provision. 

Twice a year, Zechariah would leave home for a week while his division served at the Temple.  It was similar to being in the Reserves.  Some of you are separated from a spouse who is serving our country.  This had to be difficult for Elizabeth but she also knew that it was an honor for her husband to serve in this way.  Verse 9 tells us that Zechariah was chosen by lot to go into the Holy Place and burn incense.  This was a once-in-a lifetime privilege and was the greatest moment in the life of any priest.  As a thousand priests stand outside and thousands of worshippers have gathered in the Court of Israel, Zechariah stands alone in the holy place.  Only he’s not alone because an angel of the Lord suddenly appears and announces in verse 13: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.”  The little verb phrase “has been heard” can be literally translated “was heard and is being heard.”

This is amazing because Zechariah and Elizabeth are quite old and past the normal age to have children.  It’s quite possible that they had been praying for 40 years or more but nothing had happened.  Or maybe they had given up much earlier.  And now they were too old.  And yet here’s an angel saying: “Your prayer has been heard.”  That reminds me of the passage in Daniel 10:12-13 that explains that Daniel’s prayer was heard right when he prayed but the answer was delayed for three weeks.

There’s no doubt that Zechariah and Elizabeth had an ache in their heart for many years but they kept praying.  1 Thessalonians 5:17 says: “Pray continually.”  They also kept serving and worshipping.  I’ve seen too many people get so disappointed that they end up bitter toward God and then they drop out of church.  I’ve said this before but it’s so true: If you unplug, you’ll unravel.  God often puts us in hopeless situations so we’ll turn to Him.

Instead of trusting God, Zechariah wants some assurance that this will really happen.  Look at verse 18: “How can I be sure of this?  I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”  Because he doubted, he was given a sign, only not one he wanted.  He would not be able to speak until John was born.

I’m often the same way.  I pray for something then lose heart and then when the answer comes I’m often skeptical that it is really happening.  I wish I wasn’t so surprised when God answers my prayers.  Do you ever feel that way?  Let’s be reminded of Ephesians 3:20: “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more that all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work with us…”

Friend, have you stopped praying for something because there’s been no answer?  Don’t give up because when you pray God hears it.  A young girl once wrote to a missionary to let him know that she was keeping him in her prayers.  She had been told to not expect a response to her letter because the missionary was very busy, so she began with these words: “Dear Mr. Missionary, I am praying for you, but don’t worry, I’m not expecting an answer.”

In what area do you need to begin interceding again?  Do you need to start praying again for that person who doesn’t yet know Jesus?  For a relationship that will honor Christ?  For your spouse?  For a prodigal child?  For your parents?  For that impossible financial situation?   Let’s pause right now and pray silently.

3. Trust God’s timing. 

One of the hardest things to do when we pray is to wait for God’s answers.  I’m intrigued by God’s sense of timing in Luke 1.

1:5 “In the time of Herod…”

1:10 “And when the time for the burning of incense came…”

1:20 “…my words, which will come true at their proper time.”

1:23 “When his time of service was completed…”

1:24 “After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.”

1:26 “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth…”

1:29 “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea.”

1:57 “When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.”

When God used Gabriel to speak to Zechariah, He was breaking 400 years of silence.  But now the time was right for something new.  The last words in Malachi speak of the promise of a prophet who would come in the spirit of Elijah: “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

God answers prayer according to His timing and His delays are not the same thing as His denials.  Isaiah 55:8-9: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.  ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”  

God often waits until things are humanly impossible and then He does what only He can do:

  • Abraham waited 25 years for the son that was promised to him.
  • Jacob was not given prosperity until after he became a fugitive.
  • Joseph was ruler of Egypt only after he was in prison.
  • Gideon had victory only when his army was taken down in size to 300.

God waits in order to display His glory, to dispense His grace and to grow our character.  I like how one author puts it.

When we pray a prayer that is not right, God will say, “NO.”

When we pray a prayer and we are not right, God will say, “GROW.”

When we pray a prayer and the timing is not right, God will say, “SLOW.”

But, when we pray a prayer and all is right, God will say, “GO.”

\In what area do you need to trust God’s timing?  Related to this, do you need to confess any anger you have toward God for not answering according to your timetable?  Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t know it, but God had been planning this from the very beginning.  What seemed like unexplainable silence was really God working to prepare them to be part of His plan to offer salvation to the world.  Friend, it’s time to let God do His perfect work in His perfect time and stop trying to push Him to fit our imperfect schedules.  Remember: Before God does something new, He’s working on you!

4. Look for ways to encourage others. 

When you’re going through something, look for ways that God wants to use you to encourage someone else.  Most of us get so wrapped up in our own worries that we forget that there are people around us who need encouragement.  In fact, one reason God ministers to us is so that we’ll minister to others.  Check out 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

Elizabeth was a huge encouragement to Mary.  In fact, Elizabeth’s pregnancy was used as an example by the angel when he spoke to Mary in verses 36-37: “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God.”   Elizabeth and Mary now had something in common because both of their pregnancies were miraculous.  When they met, Elizabeth’s baby leaped in her womb and then in a loud voice she exclaimed in verse 42: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!”  I love this about Elizabeth – her focus is on Mary, not on herself.  And, these words were further confirmation to her about what Gabriel had told her.

Learn from Elizabeth and look around and see who needs some encouragement today.  It’s likely that God wants to use you to help someone who is going through something you have already experienced.

5. Enjoy the blessing of believing. 

Every member of Elizabeth’s family was impacted by the announcement of the Lord’s salvation.  Even the baby in her womb leaped for joy in the presence of the Savior.  You might be the only one in your family who has come to faith in Christ but God wants to use you in your family.  I love the story in Acts 16 where we read that the Philippian jailer believed…and then his whole family did as well.

Would you notice that Elizabeth called Jesus “my Lord” even before He was born in verse 43“But why I am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  She then blesses Mary with by affirming her for her acceptance of the Lord’s will in her life in verse 45: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”  One commentator aptly points out: “An aged priest has less faith than a young peasant girl, and thus Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary for her faith in God’s promise contains a mild rebuke for her doubting husband, who did not believe Gabriel’s words.”

May I point out that Elizabeth seems to have had much deeper spiritual and scriptural insight than Zechariah did?  She speaks of much more than she would have learned from what the angel said to her husband – not just that their son would be the forerunner, but that the son of Mary is Lord and Savior.  Elizabeth had no doubt that Jesus was the Lord and the only way to salvation.  

I read something this week and perhaps you did as well, that troubled me so deeply. I’d like to share just part of it because I think it’s so important.  This quote from the Pew study I referenced earlier is quite unsettling: “Among the more startling numbers in the survey, conducted last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: 57 percent of evangelical church attendees said they believe many religions can lead to eternal life, in conflict with traditional evangelical teaching.”

While we live in a pluralistic country, as believers in Jesus we must teach what Jesus himself taught.  He is the only way to heaven: “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life.  There is no other plan but the person of Jesus.  There is no way to get to heaven unless we go through Him.  Jesus is very inclusive in the sense that everyone is invited to a relationship with Him as John 6:37 states: “…whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”  But, His claims are very exclusive in the sense that there is no other way to Heaven except through Him.  The exclusivity of Immanuel is emphatic.

How does this mesh in a pluralistic society like ours that values variety and excludes exclusive truth claims?  Though Christianity still dominates by sheer numbers, the U.S. now has a greater diversity of religious groups than any country in recorded history.  Did you know that there are now more Muslims in America than there are Methodists?  It’s helpful to remember that the world of the biblical authors was filled with paganism and pluralism as well.  In the midst of all this doctrinal diversity, the Bible makes some rather startling claims that run counter-cultural to the mantra of religious tolerance. 

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus made it clear that the way to heaven is pretty restrictive: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” 

Peter boldly states in Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” 

1 Timothy 2:5-6: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all men…” 

1 John 5:12: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” 

These passages are extremely exclusive and overwhelmingly clear: Jesus is the only way to heaven.  His statements of divine authority are incompatible with the homogenizing views of religious pluralists.

As you can tell, I’m a bit worked up about this.  As one of your pastors I want you to hear it straight.  It may be true that more than half of evangelicals believe there are other ways to get to heaven but I’m committed to making sure that the people of this church know that Jesus is the only way to get there!

6. Speak up when the time’s right. 

Can you imagine what it must have been like for Elizabeth when she was pregnant?  We know from verse 24 that she was in seclusion for five months.  We don’t know why she did this but it could have been to meditate on the angel’s prophecy and get prepared for what was to come.  Or maybe she was waiting until she “showed more” so that people who doubted she was pregnant could see the evidence.  This time of solitude was no doubt good for her.

Zechariah couldn’t speak at all for these months and verse 60 tells us that eight days after the baby was born when it came time to name him everyone thought he would be named after Zechariah but Elizabeth spoke up and said, “No!  He is to be called John!”  This probably got everyone talking and so they made signs to his father (which shows that he was not only dumb but deaf as well) and he wrote out these words: “His name is John.”  At that moment he was finally able to speak and his first words were in praise of God and then he breaks out into some lengthy lyrics in verses 67-80.

She was not afraid to say what she knew to be true, no matter what others thought of her

I love how Elizabeth speaks up and speaks out.  She was not afraid to say what she knew to be true, no matter what others thought of her.  Friend, in what ways do you need to speak up?  Have you been holding your faith in?  One of my favorite verses is found in Jeremiah 20:9: “But if I say I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name, then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones and I am weary of holding it in and I cannot endure it.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?